How To Boost Executive Functioning Skills in Preschool Kids (Ages 3‑5)


Jan 4, 2019


Executive functioning skills comprise abilities as basic as self-control, memory, self-awareness, reasoning, problem solving and more. In earlier articles in this series, we’ve explored what executive function is, stressed how it can predict academic success, and detailed developmental activities for babies and toddlers that will build executive function skills. This installment focuses on executive function in preschool kids (i.e., children aged 3 to 5) and activities that can help build their executive function skills.

Executive function in preschool kids (ages 3 to 5)

Between the ages of 3 and 5, executive function develops exponentially. Preschool kids are able to draw on their working memory and attention skills to accomplish small goals, such as dressing themselves, picking up toys or setting the table for dinner, though they may need help.

One of the most rapidly developing executive function skill during this stage is self-regulation. Preschool children are beginning to play cooperatively with other children, and often during this play reinforce behavior — and thus promote self-regulation — among each other. Activities that support understanding of rules and structures, for younger children, and similar activities that leave more room for independence, for older children in this age group, will help build executive function in preschool-age kids.

Preschool children are also developing cognitive flexibility, that is, the ability to switch between thinking about two different concepts, or to hold multiple concepts in mind at the same time — for instance, that an object can be identified as a circle, and/or as blue.

Therefore, per Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, and developmental pediatrician Dr Mausam Shahpurwala, there are executive functioning activities for preschool kids, ages 3 and 5, that will help them build these essential skills.

Executive functioning activities for 3- to 5-year-old kids

Imitative pretend play

When children play Teacher Teacher, Kitchen Kitchen, Doctor Doctor or other forms of imaginary play, what they end up doing is developing their own rules to guide their actions by taking decisions about what behavior fits the role, and what doesn’t. For example, if a child is playing Kitchen Kitchen, they might take on multiple roles: that of a child (hungry, waiting, then eating), or that of a person cooking (reassuring, creating, then feeding).

Parents can support or build imaginary plays by reading books to children and taking them on field trips, so they see varied real-life scenarios and can imitate them in pretend play. “Also give them enough props and toys to use while they’re acting like someone, something,” says Dr Shahpurwala. “While younger kids need to be given more real props, allow older children to make their own props. This will expand their creativity.”

Matching, sorting and puzzling

Games that ask children to match items by various criteria help promote cognitive flexibility. For instance, children can be asked to identify items by color, and then next, the same items by shape. Later, by both shape and color. Increasingly complicated puzzles can also engage children this age and exercise their cognitive flexibility, visual working memory, and planning skills.


You can also engage children in cooking because, as they wait for instructions, they practice inhibition. They also exercise working memory, while cooking, by trying to hold complicated directions in mind, and learning how to focus, by measuring or counting ingredient.


When younger, children often tell narrative stories about their day — what happened after what — but the recounting lacks structure, say Harvard experts. However with practice, and as they grow older, they develop more ability to hold and manipulate information in working memory.

Here, parents will need to encourage storytelling, says Dr Shahpurwala. “Also encourage them to write it down or draw it, to create their own books so that you can go over with them again and again and that will support more organization and adding more details to encourage elaboration,” she says.

Group storytelling is also another way to encourage kids to exercise working memory — think of games like Chinese Whispers, where one person starts the story, the other adds to it and repeats the whole thing while passing it to the third one. These challenge preschoolers’ attention, working memory and self-control. Children can also act out stories they have made up. “The story provides a structure that guides children’s actions and requires them to attend to the story and follow it, while inhibiting their impulse to create a new plot,” Harvard experts say.

These stories and conversations are all the better if children use more than one language, as bilingualism aids the development of executive function in children of all ages.

Dancing and singing

Moving to a specific rhythm and synchronization strengthens kids’ self-control: Play some music with alternating tempos and have children dance really fast, then really slowly. Freeze dance is also fun — where you play a song and ask children to freeze during, say, the refrain — and it can be made more difficult by asking children to freeze in particular positions, recommends the Harvard experts. The same kind of activity can be done with singing, too.


Written By Anubhuti Matta

Anubhuti Matta is an associate editor with The Swaddle. When not at work, she’s busy pursuing kathak, reading books on and by women in the Middle East or making dresses out of Indian prints.


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